1193 From Scapa Flow to Lord Byng

In Action with Destroyers 1939-1945: the Wartime Memoirs of Commander J.A.J. Dennis, DSC, RN
by J.A.J. Dennis (author) and Anthony Cumming (editor)

Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK: Pen and Sword Maritime, 2017
£19.99 (U.K.) / 9781526718495

Reviewed by Michael L. Hadley

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BC books and authors offer a rich palette of local and international perspectives. They bring immigrant stories into the blend. Ultimately, each one adds a new thread to the Canadian mosaic. They become part of our own national narrative. Such is the case with the wartime memoirs of the Royal Navy’s Commander Alec Dennis, RN, a distinguished World War II naval officer who immigrated to Canada in 1958. He had served with distinction during often bitter campaigns in foreign waters. He had sailed in four different destroyers, eventually commanding HMS Valorous and Tetcott. This was a time in which heavy responsibilities fell upon very young shoulders. Dennis became second-in-command of a destroyer at the age of twenty-two, and captain at the age of twenty-six. In those days the average age of Spitfire pilots during the Battle of Britain was twenty, and that of German submarine captains during the Battle of the Atlantic just twenty-four.

Commander Alec Dennis, RN

Dennis experienced action in Arctic convoys, as well as off Norway, Crete, and Madagascar. On retiring from the Royal Navy in 1957 after over twenty-five years of sea service, he immigrated to Canada, and eventually taught at Lord Byng High School, Vancouver. His memoirs cover the youthful, action-packed seven-and-half years out of his ninety-year life. He died in 2008.

In writing his memoirs, Commander Dennis joined the literary ranks of many Canadian naval officers like BC’s Hal Lawrence and Gordon Stead, both of whom published their gripping stories. Hal Lawrence’s works (A Bloody War, 1979; Tales of the North Atlantic, 1985; Victory at Sea: Tales of His Majesty’s Coastal Forces, 1989) captured the spirit of the Battle of the Atlantic, while Stead (A Leaf upon the Sea, 2011) gripped his readers with combat in motor torpedo-boats in the Mediterranean, 1941-43. Both wrote vivid and insightful personal accounts. These three writers underscore the interwoven traditions and operational experiences of both the Canadian and British navies.

HMS Griffin

But it wasn’t just shared experience and nautical culture that links the two navies. Shared equipment and combat doctrine formed part of the weave. As Dennis’s narrative unfolds we learn that after four years aboard the destroyer HMS Griffin (the last month of which he was in command), he turned her over to the Canadian navy, and into the hands of her new skipper, Commander (later Rear-Admiral) Hugh Francis Pullen. The ship re-entered wartime service as HMCS Ottawa (II). Pullen’s previous command had been the former HMS Crusader. Renamed HMCS Ottawa (I), the destroyer had been sunk by German submarine U-97 in September 1942.

Dennis commanded HMS Tetcott, shown here on a convoy to Russia, 1942. Courtesy Imperial War Museum
HMCS Algonquin. George Metcalf Archival Collection, Canadian War Museum

Other inter-naval contacts followed. Celebrating his twenty-sixth birthday in the famous fleet anchorage of Scapa Flow, Dennis found his ship nesting alongside the Canadian destroyer HMCS Algonquin, commanded by Commander (later Rear-Admiral) Debbie Piers. The birthday party spilled over into the wardroom of the Canadian ship, and set the tone for a friendship years later when Debbie Piers was Commandant of the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. And throughout the war, the trajectories of ships and naval lives interwove. Canadian flotillas of Motor Torpedo boats — each one a “leaf upon the sea” — were fighting in the English Channel and in the Mediterranean, while Canadian warships escorted huge convoys across the broad Atlantic. As far as many in the British and Canadian navies were concerned, the war at sea was, so to speak, a family affair — though not without friction.

Alec Dennis lived in Vancouver from 1960 until his death in 2008 at the age of 90. He taught at Lord Byng School in West Point Grey

You can readily picture an elderly Dennis re-living those precious moments while writing his memoir. Many stories he had never shared before, not even with his family. But bit by bit, as every memoirist hopes, those moments came alive again under his pen. His crisp and personal style lends immediacy to his experiences; his sense of humour and self-irony defuse even the worst side of war: bombings, strafings, torpedoings and death. Thus, reflecting on the German bombing of the port of Alexandria, where his ship lay in port, he drily remarks that the attack had destroyed a brothel, as a result of which certain naval officers were listed as “missing in action.” That’s the kind of ‘salty dip’ — the seaman’s term for a tall tale — that relieves the tensions of war. Young sailors loved to tell them in the mess decks. Just for the fun of it. Or more whimsically, having suffered months of German bomber attacks he greeted his transfer to the Mediterranean combat zone by conceding: “at least we would have something to shoot at without being a target all the time.”

Scharnhorst, 1939. Courtesy Bundesarchiv (BArch) via Wikimedia Commons

Dennis had witnessed the sinking of the British battleship HMS Barham in November 1941 in the Mediterranean by U-331 (von Tiesenhausen). Later, during the Battle of North Cape, he participated in sinking the German battleship Scharnhorst on 26 December 1943. However, where he devoted six lively pages showing us Allied forces “pound the wretched Scharnhorst to pieces,” he spared but a scant page on the skillful German success. Dennis later met von Tiesenhausen in Vancouver, after they had both immigrated and become Canadians. He tells us they became good friends. Significantly, that special relationship between former enemies mirrors the experience of many other combatants like Victoria’s Commander Craig Campbell whose HMCS Clayoquot had been sunk off Halifax on Christmas Eve 1944 by U-806 (Klaus Hornbostel). Postwar, the two men became firm friends.

HMCS Esquimalt. Courtesy Naval Association of Canada

Or again, veterans know the story of the Chief Engineer of U-190 that sank HMCS Esquimalt off Halifax in April 1945. Werner Hirschmann had immigrated to Canada after the war, spent the rest of his life in Toronto as a Canadian, and regularly attended the Esquimalt’s annual memorial in Esquimalt. The survivors made him an honorary member of the crew. Such stories cause us to ponder some very personal dimensions of war. Sadly, Commander Dennis keeps this relationship to himself.

Not having kept a wartime journal, Commander Dennis drew largely on his memories and his collection of Navigator’s Notebooks. He had written, he confessed, “without much revision,” and no thought whatever of eventual publication. In telling these tales he draws the reader into his intimate circle like an affable old friend. And it was such a friend who encouraged him to deposit his unpublished manuscript in the Imperial War Museum in London. That is where the editor of the volume, Dr. Anthony Cumming, chanced upon it. Serendipity often plays a decisive role when sleuthing in archives.

Dennis commanded HMS Valorous, pennant number LOO (“Lucky Loo”), shown here with White Ensign and Norwegian flag at the masthead, ca. 1945. At left is a Norwegian trawler crowded with visitors. Courtesy of Alan Dennis
HMS Valorous (right). Photo taken from HMS Viceroy by Lt Cdr John Manners, RN, 1944

Editing someone else’s raw manuscript always offer special challenges. Corrections and context are key among them. Cumming added contextual clarity by framing the narrative. His “Editor’s Introduction” explains his discovery and speaks of the productive year of emails between himself and the Dennis family that led to publication. His competent fourteen-page “Editor’s Historical Note” at the end of the book sets the stage for the non-historian. Editor Cummings suggests that this vivid memoir by Commander Dennis “will appeal more to the educated general reader than an academic professor, but the serious student of military history will find his words fascinating.” He need not have been so cautious, for the memoir will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. Indeed the old salts among us will find their own memories of naval service resonating with those of Commander Dennis, a congenial shipmate recounting a crucial phase of his very long life.

Alec Dennis’s book celebrates an era when, in the words of the nostalgic veterans’ song, “we were young and in our prime….” It had been a high time, playing for high stakes. And now, as we reach the final page, the great game is all over. No bands played when he brought his destroyer safely alongside into home port at the end of the war in 1945. Pondering his young life many years later, Dennis quietly signed off his memoir with a laconic farewell: “There wasn’t much of a hero’s welcome. Half-a-dozen wives and a handful of scruffy dockyard mateys. But who cared?” Sic transit gloria mundi.

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Michael Hadley

A multidisciplinary scholar and prize-winner author, Michael L. Hadley, CD, PhD, FRSC, has published books on German submarine warfare and Canadian naval history, as well as on religion and criminal justice. He served in the Canadian navy, where he reached the rank of Captain, and has been a yachtsman for many years. Currently professor emeritus of the University of Victoria, a Fellow of the university’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, a Senior Member of Robinson College, University of Cambridge, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and listed in The Canadian Who’s Who. His books published in BC are God’s Little Ships: a History of the Columbia Coast Mission (Harbour Publishing, 1995) and Spindrift: a Canadian Book of the Sea (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017), reviewed by Theo Dombrowski in The Ormsby Review.

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